Thursday, December 25, 2014

black and white

I think my brother's happy. I never get a clear picture of him, but when I do see him, it's like a cracked mirror: a fractured picture with shivers. I see his smile in one crack, but the one above it shows his brown brown eyes--just like mine--and every day there's a moment where I catch a hint of sadness and I wonder just how true that smile is. I also see his hands in a crack, smooth, long fingers with dirt under their fingers. Sometimes a pencil smudges his fingertips and knuckles, and it's like the pencil and his hands are like one living creature, breathing, emoting, and creating. Sometimes his hands show more truth in their emotions than his face does. Other times, his hands are filled with other hands: small, grubby fingers (multiple sets of these), a browner hand than his with rounded fingernails (sometimes painted blue, a ring on her ring finger), a wrinkly hand with shaky blue veins. Sometimes his hand claps firmly on a broad shoulder, or it hangs loosely by his thumb from his belt loops. He has strong hands, which makes me laugh, because when he was younger he had the hands of a girl. Colt never let him forget that, and even now, his red face stays in my memory.


My brother. It's ironic that I see him through a mirror, because looking at him is exactly like looking at a mirror. His eyes have the same creases, his nose curve upwards in the same way, his teeth had identical braces to mine. Even the tiny reddish-brown freckle just below my right eye is mirrored on him. People say we're eery; I say we're ingenious. The creation of two identical beings. I don't know how the creator thought it up, but I do think he's a darn genius for doing so.

I don't know why I'm looking so closely at him tonight. Maybe it's because what I see right now tells me it's Christmas where he is: the golden glow of candlelight, the green spikes of pine and evergreen, the cacophony of children's smiles and laughter. My brother was a confusing lot when it came to this season. As a kid, when mom still dressed us alike and our hair still curled when she let it grow too long, he fell in love with the lights and the rustle of papers and presents. He never stopped talking about it, once December 1st rolled by. But then, he got older. Some element of the shine disappeared, and his love for the holiday slowly vanished. Watching a child turn jaded far too young is one of the most heartbreaking things you'll ever see, and I witnessed that first hand, a child myself.


My brother. It's funny, but I don't miss him. As terrible as it is to say, I think me leaving made him a better person. He's strong now. He's independent. He has a job now--the brother I knew never talked of the future. The idea that the little boy who liked to build castles and ranches and airports out of his Lincoln Logs and blocks is now an architect achieving dreams and making money makes me proud. The three little munchkins I see in the mirror more often than not make me proud too. It's even weirder seeing my eyes in them than it is to see them in him. I'm impressed he managed all three without the burden of my name, although perhaps it's because that name is still a burden to him. Maybe he wants to keep it sacred. Still, seeing the way they crawl over him and hug him and give him all the affection he so proudly refused is gratifying to me. I never imagined him as a father, but he's a good one. I can see that in his smile, hands, and eyes. The girl he chose is also something I never thought he would actually find the guts to commit to. He never was that great of a people person, though he tried his hardest to fake it. Others probably never noticed, but I did. I kind of miss her fiery hair, but I think he likes the soft brown a little better. I see a lot of her in the mirror too--she smiles a lot, teases him unmercifully, and holds him tight on the darkest nights.

Yes, those still happen. Even though he's got a good job, a house full of kids, a loving wife...his shadows still hover over him like fallen angels. But isn't that the truth of life? You can have it all put together. You can have everything. But that doesn't mean you're invincible. It doesn't mean you can't have troubles, trials, or temptations. It just means you're human. And my brother's lucky to have a wife to hold him and a God to reassure him that everything will be alright. Not all do.

The dark nights are the hardest for me to watch, but I sit through every single one of them, because I feel it's like my duty to do so. Without me, would he have all these issues? Without me, would he struggle with his shadowy thoughts? If I was still there, I could be one of the ones to hold him and tell him he was going to be all-right.

But I'm not.

I'm here.

So I sit and watch, because it's my job.

For my brother.

I think my brother's happy. He's holding a kid on his lap, and his oldest child--a daughter with mousy brown hair and a crooked smile and slender fingers like his--leans against him and smiles. She says something that I'll never hear, and my brother throws his head back in a laugh. The most beautiful thing in the world is a person who's been broken, who knows what it is to hurt and to feel, who has preserved. And a potentially even more beautiful thing is that person laughing.

My brother.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

this is us growing up

"Hey." Shiloh sat down next to Colt.

"Hey." He scooted over so she had more room on the North's forever lumpy and avacado green couch.

It was Christmas morning. Correction: Christmas morning/afternoon. On December 25th, Shiloh was never truly certain when the morning stopped and the afternoon began. Considering the fact that Matt was still asleep, mom had just popped a tray of cinnamon rolls in the oven, and she was still in her fuzzy pajama pants, it was still morning. Even Colt had the droopy eyelids and messy hair that came with the lazy atmosphere; his college hoodie wrinkled like he'd slept in it. Apart from the morning bad-breath, he looked kind of adorable.

Which was making this even harder.

Shiloh brought her legs up onto the couch and tucked her cold feet under a pillow, then turned to look him straight on. Courage, Shiloh, courage! she could hear Sam snoring words of encouragement from the other room. Or maybe that was just her imagination.

"Colt?"

His eyes were unfocused and sleepy, but they latched onto her the moment he noticed her firm gaze. "Yup?" He didn't sound concerned or worried, just tired. Shiloh almost smiled.

She steeled her face. This wasn't a time to be smiling or laughing. This was serious now.

"So...I hate doing this."

His forehead wrinkled as he frowned. "Doing what?"

"Especially right now. I mean, it's Christmas. I shouldn't be making you think about this today."

"Think about what?"

"But you're leaving to go east to visit family tomorrow and I'm not going to see you until January and I'm afraid I'm going to get cold feet and let it go while I'm gone. So I'm saying it today."

"Saying what?" Colt's mouth lifted at the side in a grin, and he held up a hand, cutting off her flow of words. "I think we're having two different conversations, and mine doesn't have any of the answers that yours does." He took her hand in his and squeezed. "So let's take a deep breath and start over."

Shiloh didn't stop to breathe. She knew if she did she'd end up telling him to just forget it all--she bordered on telling him it was nothing as it was right then. So she had to say, before one second of hesitation destroyed her goal.

"I think we should break up."

He looked up.

What did he expect to see? A teasing face? They'd playfully broken up a hundred times before (about half of them were to annoy Matt), so those words were one he'd heard before. Or maybe he thought he'd misheard and was double-checking the mood to make sure it was him and not her.

Nope. The mood was serious. There was no teasing or flirtation. She meant those words.

"Actually, I know we should break up."

He pulled back, his hand loosening on hers and sliding back into his lap. His tired eyes stayed trained on hers, but now a shade of gray slipped into his blue eyes. He wasn't just tired. He was done.
"Tell me why," he said. He didn't even bother to challenge her words.

Shiloh felt a sinking feeling inside her. This really was happening.

"It isn't the right time. My grades are suffering, you know that. I just don't feel like it's right." These were all the things Sam had listed last night, but when she said them, they suddenly became excuses instead of reasons. Guilt tightened her throat, and she looked away for a quick moment and hoped he didn't notice.

He noticed.

"That all?" He turned his head to the side and frowned. "Doesn't sound like it."

He knew her too well. That was the whole reason behind this. But how could she express that without confusion or worse--offending him? She bit her lip. Words were never her forte. A family curse, according to Matt. But now she had to find the right ones or she could lose a friend.

One of her best friends.

She swallowed, then met his eyes again. "You make me feel empty."

He raised an eyebrow slightly.

"Other girls say they get excited when their boyfriend comes to see them, or when they're on dates, they're happy and can't hold still from excitement. I don't have any of that. When you walk in the front door, my first thought isn't "My boyfriend is here to see me!" It's "Ah, Colt's here to hang out with Matt.""

"So you don't want to date because I'm friends with your brother?"

She shook her head. She was only just getting started. "I don't not want to date. It's not as simple as that. I don't think this relationship is right for me or for you."

He leaned back into the couch and continued to watch her, eyes still blue-grey. "Why?"

"Because you need to find someone besides your best friend's sister--and honestly, someone besides the girls you flirt with because you're bored. They're not worth it, and neither am I." She held up a hand when he started to say something. "No, it's right. I'm not right for you. I was a parachute girlfriend. I had a crush on you as a little kid, but now we're growing up and we need to expand our horizons. I really like you, Colt. I really do. But the more I am around you I realize that I like you as a friend and not as anything more." She shrugged. "Maybe that will change. In a year, in six years, when we're old...I don't know. But right now, at this moment, this is what I've been feeling. And it's what I know is right." She took a deep breath. Tension eased out of her shoulders, and she suddenly felt relaxed, like a load of worry evaporated from her body. This was the right thing. "Take it or leave it."

Colt didn't say anything at first. He just sat and watched her, expressionless. Shiloh swallowed. Mom left the tap dripping when she was in the kitchen, and the incessant noise started to grate. She wanted to blink hurriedly or glance away, but then he'd know she was still nervous and worried and after all her great words she didn't want to seem that silly.

His first movement was slow, like always, but as the smile spread across his face, it just got bigger and faster, until his whole face smiled. She hesitantly smiled back, not sure what to think of it.

"And you say you're not good with words," he finally said, smirking.

If she'd been in the mood to flirt, she would've playfully hit him, but now wasn't that time. She just smiled--this time, a real smile. "Sometimes the right ones find their way out."

He cracked his knuckles noisily, looking up at her askance, like he was unsure what to say now. "I...I've known things weren't right for a long time. But I didn't want to bring it up, in case I was reading you wrong."

"When have you ever read me wrong, Colton Trelawney?"

He smiled. "Never. But still--I wanted to be sure. And now I am."

"And you think?"

He pursed his lips together and sighed heavily, and Shiloh almost laughed at how altogether thoughtful he looked. It was almost picture-worthy. Instead, she sat quietly and waited.

"I think..." he said quietly, not looking at her. "I think I'm proud of you."

"What?"

"I'm proud of you." He bit his lip, like slight pain would bring the right words to mind. "Not many seventeen year olds would have the maturity to make a decision like that. To make the difference between "I want you to be my friend" and "I want to date you." To have the strength to say that to someone who isn't going to disappear from your life after you break up. That makes me proud of you."

"...thank you? But that really doesn't answer my question." She narrowed her eyes at him. "Are you stalling?"

He laughed. "A bit, yeah. But it's all true. I know I'm proud of you. I'm proud to have dated you. And I'm proud to be your friend."

"Friend?"

"It was selfish and immature of me to date you in the first place. We've been dating for what, two years? You were fifteen, I was nineteen? I was stupid then." He grinned. "You're going to say, "Still are," aren't you?"

She just smiled at him and didn't say a word.

He rubbed the back of his neck and looked down at his lap. "I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm okay. I think you need to move on, and I think I need to get some fresh air. It's not what I want, but it's what I need to do. I realized the other day that, other than Matt, Sam, and you, I don't have any strong friendships. They're all relationships with people like those girls you mentioned. I need to do better. And so do you." He nudged her gently with his big toe. "Don't let the next guy you find be a deadbeat like me, okay?"

She suddenly had the overwhelming urge to hug him, but she restrained herself--barely. "You're not a deadbeat." Her voice barely ranked over a whisper. "You're a great person."

"But not the great person for you." He took her head. Obviously, he didn't have the same hesitations she did. Or maybe he hid them better. "So."

"So."

"Is this us...breaking up?"

"I hate that term."

"Me too."

"Maybe...we're not breaking up. We're just moving on. Growing up. Something like that."

Colt nodded, smiling. "Yeah. I like that."

She squeezed his hand a little, swallowing back the little half-hearted lump buried in the pit of her throat. This was the right thing.

"So yeah." Her words fell brittle on the silence. He sighed, looking at the tree lights. They glistened too happily in his glassy eyes, and she looked away, because if Colt felt like crying, she didn't want to see it. Because then she might turn back. She might lose all the ground that she had just made. She would lose it all.

"So this is us," he said, "growing up at last."

"It's kind scary, isn't it?"

He squeezed her hand back. "Yeah, scary. And exciting. And weird. And new. But good. Really good."

{merry christmas, guys! Hope you have a great one! Can't believe we only have one more day of Christmas with The Great Ones...it's been a fun ride! This last part of Shiloh and Colt's story didn't come onto the page as well as I hoped it would, but hey! no one's perfect. :) }

Monday, December 22, 2014

diagnosing the disease

The car trip home was torture.

Matt drove, and he exiled Sam to the back seat with Shiloh, saying that she had had too much caffeine to even sit in the front. At first, Shiloh felt relief at this--having Colt in shotgun meant no awkward silences or sneaky glances at each other when they thought the other was busy looking out the window. But as Sam leaned forward in her seat and chattered with the boys, the sinking, empty feeling returned.

She had nothing to say. Nothing. There were no words pushing their way out of her mouth like usual. All she wanted to was to sit there in peace and quiet and listen to nothing in particular. Definitely not Colton teasing Sam about her pink t-shirt or her almost completely brown hair. Is this how Matty feels all the time? Cold? Silent? Alone? What made it worse was that she felt rude at the same time as all these other emotions flooded her. Not just rude. It was like a spotlight shone down upon, and a flashing billboard broadcasted "Shiloh North is rude and unsociable!" She didn't want to be rude. Heck no. That was Matt's job. She was supposed to be the nice, friendly little sister, who knew how to keep a conversation going and when to change the topic. This...this wasn't right.

But she had nothing to say.

Every now and then, she thought she saw his eyes in the mirror, trying to see her expression. He didn't look worried. He didn't look happy either.

Sam noticed too. If Matt hadn't been driving, she would've been all over him, whispering questions he didn't know the answers to. Why would he? He hadn't noticed the tension  between the two of them, even on the deathly silent trip in.

He'd even cracked a half-hearted joke to break the silence and appease his jitters, asking if Colt had forgotten Shiloh's birthday or something. Neither of them had said a word, and Matt just let it lie.

Sometimes, Shiloh wished her brother wasn't breaking out of his shell as much. It was nicer when he didn't pay attention to anyone--especially to her and Colt.

But every time she thought that, she felt terrible inside, and her mouth tasted like vinegar.

Dinner was torture too.

She had to sit by Colt, who acted like nothing was wrong. He was so good at faking. Too good. How could he sit there eating green beans like there was no tomorrow, while their knees were close enough to touch. Shiloh felt like running from the table every time he brushed up against her accidentally. She couldn't eat, even though her stomach turned in on itself, she was so hungry. Her throat was too tight to swallow.

All the while, Sam watched carefully.

Finally, after a painful movie and late night snack with the parents, Shiloh escaped to her room. Sam was in the shower; the only noise she could hear was her quiet humming and the gentle beat of the water. The lack of commotion, of inane voice soothed her prickly emotions, and the tension bottled up in her muscles and stomach and mind slowly eased away. As she stretched out on her bed, she let her eyes fall shut and wondered if tomorrow would be any better. Would she wake up and all this would just be her stupid imagination? Her feelings would be back in wack?

Tomorrow would be exactly the same.

She knew, because she asked the exact same question every night as she layed there.
Sam cracked the door open, sticking her toweled head through first. "Knock, knock?" She wiggled her eyesbrows asking for permission to enter. Shiloh smiled and sat up.

"Come on in," she said.

"Thanks for letting me sleep here," she replied as she stepped in and then sat down at Shiloh's desk. Her towel turban was beginning to droop, so she unwound it and began tousling her still dripping hair. "I really appreciate it."

"No prob." Shiloh rubbed the underside of her chin, yawning as she did so. "Mom would hardly make you sleep on the couch."

She laughed. "I doubt Matt would even allow that to be an option. Me staying here in the same house is pushing his comfort-zone as it is. I don't know how he survived a whole road trip with me tagging along."

"I dunno, I think it's kinda adorable how embarrassed and awkward he is around you. Shows how much he really cares about you."

Sam let the towel rest in her lap as she looked at her toes steadily. "Yeah, it is adorable, but it also makes things awkward when they should be easy."

"Oh." Shiloh also looked at her toes. "I understand that. It's no fun."

Sam shook herself, like she was shaking off a bad vibe, then tossed the towel away and settled cross-legged on the chair. Her eyes glimmered with a question, and Shiloh suddenly had a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach. "So. You and Colt. What's up with all that?"

She tried to play innocent. "What's up with what?"

"Don't play naive and insipid, Shiloh, you know that makes me grit my teeth. I'm asking why you two won't look each other in the eye--or even at each other when the other is looking, now that I think about it--and why you practically bit Colt's head off after he said what he said earlier."

"The remark about me bringing home letters from school?" The blankness started to return; she wanted to fight against it, because this was Sam and she deserved to know, but her words started dying without her knowing how to stop it. "I'm failing in math."

"Really?" Her eyebrows quirked into question marks. "I thought you were the smart one."

"I am. I was," she corrected. "I've had a few other things on my mind recently. My grades have suffered, I guess."

Sam crossed her arms and made eye contact, her lips pursed together in meditation. "One of those things being a Mr. Colton Trelawney."

"Ish."

"You and your brother and your ishes. Never can get a straight answer out of you."

I want to give you a straight answer, she thought. I just don't have the words.

"Are you worried about the future?" Sam asked suddenly, and Shiloh's mouth dropped open.

"Wha--how'd you know?"

She shrugged. "Just a hunch. I felt much the same way back when I lived in Perimont, though I didn't have school to worry about on top of that."

"Why were you worried?"

She looked at the ceiling and cleared her throat. "You won't make fun of me, promise? It seems silly now that I look back at it." Shiloh shook her head; she would never dream of making fun of Sam. She was too scary to even think about that. "I worried we would never be normal. I lived too far away, he hates talking on the phone--and I'm not a fan either--, and our dynamic is just plain weird. I wanted to have a relationship like every other girl, and I was convinced that what Matt and I had didn't fall in those guidelines."

"So what did you do?" Shiloh leaned forward, holding her knees to her chest tightly.

Sam pursed her lips again. "I moved to Chicago."

She narrowed her eyes at her friend. "Seriously? You did that because you got a scholarship, silly."

"Yes, and no. At  first it was  because of the scholarship; afterwards, it became about me and Matt. I could see him more. We started to be more comfortable with each other--not as people, not as friends, but as the something more we were supposed to be. I actually started referring to myself as Matt's girlfriend and not his best-friend. We even became Facebook official after my move."

Shiloh frowned. "Wait, Matt has Facebook?"

Sam rolled her eyes and smiled. "That being said, things are a lot better now. I don't worry half as much, and we're in a much better place now. I'm happy." She shrugged. "I don't know if that's what you're going through, but that's my story."

Suddenly, Shiloh's neck burned with the same awkward feeling she got when around Colt and others in public. She didn't want to talk to Sam about this, and yet...at the same time she felt like she needed to or she was never going to be able to say anything about it again. So she bit the bullet and opened her mouth. "I think...I actually have the opposite problem."

"Oh?"

The tangy iron taste of blood blossomed in her mouth, and she quickly stopped biting her lip--the blood wasn't much, but it was enough to set her stomach churning again. "I...I don't worry that we're not normal," she said, picking her words carefully. She wanted to say everything correctly--no doubts or second-guessing herself. This was the result of a month long worry-fest; she was not flubbing it up now. "I worry that we're too normal."

Sam leaned forward, eyes bright and curious. "And why do you say that?" She said that with a practiced tone, and Shiloh wondered how many pick-this conversation-apart talks she'd had with Matt. She sure sounded like she knew what she was doing.

In everything.

"Cat got your tongue?"

Shiloh straightened and shook her head violently, flushing a little. "No...I was just thinking."

"About what?"

"That you guys had it down--somewhat, at least. I know you said you felt strange in the relationship, but on the surface, you guys seemed okay. Except for my brother's sorry excuse for social skills, but anyway." She swallowed. "You had enough distance. Your dates were sporadic enough that they actually felt like dates. You didn't see each other more than once every day--and for that matter, you haven't known each other for over ten years."

Sam cocked her head to the side and stared at Shiloh. "Your parents have all those things and they're a prize-winning couple." Not to mention the fact that they've survived the suicide of one child and the depression of another, Shiloh thought, biting her lip again. "Why are you so worried about this."

"I guess what I'm trying to say is that...it doesn't feel right."

"'Doesn't...feel right? Feel is a very large word, Shiloh."

"I know, I know, but there's just something...."

"Sometimes something can be nothing. Trust me, I know." A sudden smirk sprang to her face as she said, "Did I ever tell you about the one time I thought Matt might be trying to break up with me because he wasn't responding to my texts or calls?"

"No..." Shiloh dragged the word out, frowning a little. Matt, breaking up with Sam? The apocalypse would happen before that did.

She continued to grin, looking down into her lap and chuckling. "I was worked up that I forgot who I was thinking about. Seriously. Matt. Him and not responding to social media go hand in hand. I just forgot that in my worry." She met Shiloh's eyes. "Are you sure you're not forgetting something important about Colt in your worry."

"We act like a married couple, Sam. And we're not. I don't even know..."

"You're worried that this relationship is moving into the comfortable stage too quickly. Is that it?" Sam sighed as Shiloh nodded. "Girl, what I would give to have your problems."

She rubbed her neck sheepishly. "Am I stupid for feeling worried and sick over this?"


"No, not at all. It's a natural female thing to do. Girl likes boy, boy likes girl, girl worries herself into a tizzy about boy, and boy hardly knows because girl is so good at hiding it. Tale as old as time." She unfolded her legs and stretched her arms wide. "But I think you're getting to the breaking point. And that's not good."

"It's not?"

Sam grabbed a piece of paper and a pen off the desk. "Let's catalog your findings. #1. You like Colt."

Shiloh sighed in response.

"#2. Colt likes you."

Another sigh.

"#3. You're worried that there will never be any excitement in your relationship because of your history and comfort with each other."

Shiloh just buried her head in her arms.

"#4. That being said, you're afraid that this relationship isn't the right one for you right now."

"Especially since it's messing with my school."

Sam looked up. "I thought you said the worry was messing with your school."

The sheepish feeling returned. "Um...that and having Colt around 24/7 means homework happens late at night when I have no brain."

"Ah. Gotcha." She held out the paper and examined it carefully. "Okay. So now what are you going to do?"

Shiloh stared at her, not comprehending a single word. "...aren't you going to help me solve this?"

Sam just laughed and handed her the paper. "I helped you figure out your symptoms. Now it's up to you to find the cure."


*to be continued*

Sunday, December 21, 2014

the other north

"The Bean makes me hungry."

"Everything makes you hungry. Talking on the phone makes you hungry. Petting the dog makes you hungry. Sleeping makes you hungry. You being un-hungry is something the world has yet to witness."

"Un-hungry is not a word, Shiloh..."

Shiloh North, sister to Matthew, girlfriend to Colton, and partner in crime to Sam, turned to her boyfriend, who leaned against a trash can like he didn't care about the millions of germs collecting on the back of his jeans and hands, and glared at him. "Don't interrupt my moment."

Colton hunched over against the cold December wind and tried to smile back at her. The cold, however, had other ideas. The smile quickly morphed into a grimace. "Okay, okay. I've just never heard it in a sentence before."

A huff of steam exploded from her sigh, and she turned back to the Bean. "Just don't go turning into Matt on me, okay?" She was too far away to see her reflection, and she wondered why they chose the trash cans as their meeting place--Millenium Park was almost completely deserted, oddly enough. They could've taken the opportunity to get a little closer to the strange piece of art...but then again, that's probably why they didn't. She couldn't see her brother wanting to be a stereotypical tourist and taking pictures by the Bean with his girlfriend. It was hard enough to get him to Chicago to visit her.

"Is there a reason why you're not smiling today? Like, at all?" Colt walked over to her side while she ignored him. "Did I say something wrong?"

"No." That came out a little too quickly. Shiloh winced. Colt knew something was up. She could tell by the way he'd stopped cracking jokes halfway through their date, how he'd stuck to safe topics like food and the weather and lame tv shows that she didn't even watch, and how he never took his eyes off her, except for when she looked his way. He was worried.

Was that supposed to make her feel good? Most of her girl friends reported warm and fuzzy feelings after their special guy looked after them or got worried about them. Not Shiloh. It made her empty inside, like her stomach was suddenly a vacuum and it sucked all emotion out of her being. She felt nothing.

Her phone buzzed in her pocket,and she thanked her stars that her brother was at least good at timing. "They're here," she said, without even getting her phone out. Matt wouldn't text her unless he was bleeding and dying, or that he was in the immediate vicinity. She knew him like clockwork.

"Really?" Colt blocked the dying sun from his vision with one hand, squinting like that would help at all. Shiloh watched him, the emptiness increasing. Knowing Colt like clockwork...the idea terrified her.

And intrigued her at the same time.

"There they are." She pointed, and Colt's face smoothed with a smile as he saw two dark figures approaching: one with his hand shoved deep into his pockets, and the other waving ecstatically. She felt a smile spread across her face and a flicker of something more inside of her. Sam was here, and she was pulling a bag behind her. She chuckled. So the stubborn girl had defeated the stubborn boy and was coming home with them for the weekend.

Shiloh found it hilarious that her brother spent 99% of his time at home moping because he missed Sam, and yet he was terrified of spending quality time with her. She didn't understand it at all. If you liked someone, shouldn't you want to spend more time with them? Not constantly freak out about messing up?

When she was with Colt, she didn't feel that panic that Matt described. She just felt...normal.
Too normal.

She shook her head and ran towards her potentially (most likely) future sister-in-law and her awkward bother of a brother. She'd missed them both in the three hours they'd been separated in the mad town of Chicago. Mainly because those three hours had been complete and utter torture without their presence.

Colt had suggest going to Wal-Mart. To Wal-Mart.

She didn't understand him either.

"Shiloh!" Sam dropped her bag and wrapped the other girl in a tenacious hug. "I've missed you so much!"

"It's been less than four hours since you last saw her," griped Matthew, who stooped to pick up the fallen bag.

Shiloh wriggled her eyebrows at him over Sam's shoulder. "You're just jealous that she's hugging me and not you."

He gave her the Eyes of Death, much to her amusement. Those didn't work on her any more. He was losing his touch.

The two girls pulled apart, but Sam still held onto her by her arms, jumping up and down like a hyper puppy. "So, are you up for a roommate over the weekend? I don't think Matt or I feel quite like driving to Perimont Village, if you're okay with that." Her words ran together, and she began to wonder just how much caffeine she'd consumed over their date. Even her fingertips felt jittery. Colt, ever the slow one, caught up to them. He gave Sam a short wave before bending over to catch his breath. Shiloh tried her hardest to keep her face blank, but the smallest bit of disdain slipped out. Sam's eyes flicked between the two of them, then at Matt. She'd noticed.

What she'd noticed, however, Shiloh had no clue.

"So how's college life?" Colt asked after straightening up. His flannel shirt was half-untucked, and the way the tail hung loose over his belt like a fallen flag made her want to grit her teeth. But that was nothing out of the ordinary. Colt's shirts came untucked every day. She was surprised he even bothered to keep them tucked. Why was that one detail so terribly annoying that was beginning to give her a headache? It had never done that before.


Or maybe it had, and she'd just never noticed it.

Sam shrugged, stepping back to put an arm around Matt, who stiffened like a bristly pine tree. "Okay, I guess. Miss Linds tho. You?"

He returned the shrug. "Not looking forward to next semester, but hey, that's life."

It was weird, but some little part of Shiloh twinged with jealousy at the easiness of their conversation. Sam didn't look bored at all. Colt's posture with relaxed and yet interested. The twinge came again, stronger this time. She opened her mouth before she knew what she wanted to say--she just knew she had to say something. "Listen to the smarties, being so cool about college and stuff." She winked at Matt. "Don't you feel left out?"

He raised his eyebrows at her, like he couldn't believe what had just left her mouth. She couldn't either; it had been unbelievably petty. "Don't lump me in with you, kiddo. I at least know what I want to do with my life."

Sam elbowed him in the ribs, and he flinched like she'd kissed him in public or something. Both Colt and Shiloh covered their smiles quickly. Matt was unbelievably embarrassed about skinship between him and Sam. It was almost cute to watch. His face turned red as she did it again. "Lighten up, old man," she said, smirking at him evilly--Sam was perfectly aware of how this treatment made him feel. "Your sister's still in high school; she's allowed to still be figuring herself out."

Colt glanced at Shiloh out of the corner of his eye. He thought she wouldn't noticed.

She did.

"So." Shiloh laced her fingers together and popped her knuckles loudly. The tension within her didn't lessen. "Are we ready to go? Mom wants us back by supper, especially if we're bringing Sam back." She winked at her. "I'm beginning to think she likes you more than she does me."

"Sam doesn't bring home letters from her teachers," said the very very stupid boy standing by Shiloh, without thinking about his words at all.

She slowly turned her head his direction. Were her veins popping out? Could Matt and Sam see her jugular vein pumping angrily? Because it sure felt like they could. Anger and embarrassment sent sonic booms throughout her entire body, and for a second, Shiloh wished she really did have lasers for eyes so she could incinerate her boyfriend on the spot. Colt swallowed like he knew exactly what she was thinking--and probably thought he desired it too. At least, she hoped he did. That might lessen the anger a fraction. But only a fraction.

Matt and Sam watched this entire exchange wordlessly--Sam with a worried expression, Matt with "I'm bored and you both are drama queens" stamped across his face. A quick breeze with teeth buried in its rush stung Shiloh's reddened cheeks. The quiet bustle of the park ebbed and flowed in the distance. Finally, after taking a deep breath and forcing herself to cool down, Shiloh turned away from Colt (who still stood frozen with his head bowed slightly) and smiled at Sam. "Shall we head to the car?"

Sam snapped back to life, her worried expression sliding away. "One really quick thing." She pulled a camera out of her back pocket. "It's my first time coming here, and I really want to take a picture with you all." Her eyes sparkled with excitement, and Shiloh found herself smiling back. Sam had that way about her; once she got excited about something, it wasn't longer before you were excited too.

Matthew groaned and crossed his arms in defense against the attack of the camera. "Out of the four months you've been living in Chicago, you never once had the time to come here?"

She nudged him again. "Hey, college isn't easy for everyone, brainy boy. Quit being fussy, and let's take a picture." She grabbed his hand and ran closer to the Bean, laughing at his dragging heels.

Colt and Shiloh didn't exchange pointed looks and followed them a little more slowly, with less laughter and hesitant smiles.



When they finally got to where Sam stopped, Matt was grinning  and holding Sam's hand and Shiloh doubted he was even aware of what he was doing. It was kind of adorable, but a steady buzz of unhappiness made her look away and up at the silvery curve of the Bean against the darkening sky.

"Come on, guys, closer!" Sam's bossy side came out as she shoved them tighter together, then squeezed in beside Matthew and held her camera out at a distance. "Smile!"

Group selfies were overrated and pointless, but still Shiloh found herself smiling as she waited for her friend to take the picture. This felt good. This felt normal. The flicker of warmth that had been so evidently absent over the day turned back on for a single moment.

And then Colt put his arm around her shoulder and it all vanished in a flash.
Now Shiloh was the one impersonating a stiff pine tree.

And she wasn’t happy about it. 



*to be continued*

Saturday, December 20, 2014

the faceless man and his broken wife

"Matty."

"Matty."

"Matty, please wake up."

No, I think, still in the void of my thoughts. Dead people don't wake up.

"Matty, the pastor and his wife are here. You should come talk to them."

"Mom." Shiloh enters my blank world with a calculated rumble and crash. If we were in my room, she'd lean against the doorframe with a half-smirk curling her upper lip, and mom would say something along the lines of "Don't look at me with that tone of voice, young lady," which is lame and clique but she doesn't know any better. Shi would smirk more. But we aren't in my room. We are in a blank space, where nothing but the sentences our thoughts put into order exist. This isn't the real world. This is safe.

"Don't look at me with that tone of voice, young lady."

I sigh against my will. So maybe some things still happen according to the real world in this fantasy of mine.

No. It isn't a fantasy. This is all there is. My fantasy is real, and the real is fantasy. Of course.

"Come on, Matty. I know you're awake. Sleeping people don't sigh in frustration like that." A steady force rocks me back and forth, and the illusion starts to crackle and shiver as I become aware of the blanket rubbing against my skin, the chilled draft from the cracked window, my mother's fingers splayed across my shoulder. But I can imagine that, can't I? I can imagine touch. I can imagine cold. I can imagine voices.

This isn't real.

But it is.

"Please, Matty." She never pleaded with me before like this. It was always a command, because she's my mother and that's a mother's responsibility--to direct her child. But now her voice changes: she softens, she begs, she grovels.

My skin crawls and itches like I need to shed like a snake. Worse than nails on a chalkboard.

It is shameful.

But it isn't real.

Shiloh speaks again. "Mom. They said they don't have to see him. Marcia sees him at the counseling center every week anyways; it's not like he's dropped off the edge of the planet."

Marcia. The woman who sits at the reception desk, with long blonde hair, blue eyes, a crisp cut smile, and a dimple centered on her chin. She always wears some reddish-purple color she says is mahogany but the rest of the world knows it's simply an atrocity to the eyes of others.

She isn't real either. She doesn't exist in this world. The counseling center...what was that? It doesn't exist either.

Nothing does.

Not even I do.

Because I am dead, remember?

"Don't meddle, Shiloh Catherine. This is the polite thing to do."

"You sure? Politeness would be letting the poor guy sleep. Politeness would be not forcing him out of bed. Politeness would be keeping our 'beloved past and his wife' from seeing his pathetic mess."

Score one to Shiloh. I wince although everything she says is completely true. Some people are just blessed with no tact whatsoever. Shiloh has tact; she just chooses not to use it.

God bless her blackened little soul.

"Shiloh. Can't you just let me handle this, for once."

"I don't understand why, mom? Leave him alone!"

"But they have to see he's doing better!"

A silver crack waterfalls across my blank world. Something I never created.

Something I'm destroying.

"But he's not!"

"He should be!" Her voice breaks, and you can hear every time she's wept until her voice was raw in that strangled syllable. "He should be."


The blank world, my fantasy of reality, shatters into a millions fragments, and I open my eyes.
Mom, sitting on the edge of my bed, has rimmed eyes and black traces of her tears scattered down her skin. Shiloh leans against the doorframe with rimmed eyes skillfully hidden under heavy mascara and dark eyeliner, dressed from head to toe in black. Not in mourning, she says, but as a fashion statement. A fashion statement of death.

What death?

What mourning?

It hits me like a bullet to the head. A trigger clicks by my ear. Brain death occurs. I want back into my blank world, where I don't remember anything like this or have murmurs tickle the inside of my ear, like a seductive murderer. Please, I cry silently. My eyes can't close from how much I remember. It's cutting off all functional thought. Inside, I claw at my consciousness and cry "Please. Let me back in. I promise to forget."

This couldn't be real.

Mom helps me sit up in bed. "Thank goodness. Can you tidy up a little? Not much, just a different t-shirt?"

I look down at myself and see a chibi-like Darth Vader stare back at me. "Come to the Dark Side," he tells me asthmatically, "we have cookies."

I shake my head to clear the remnants of the fake world from the crevices of my mind. That isn't real. This isn't real. The blanket wrapped around my feet like shackles isn't real. My mother, my sister aren't real.

Nothing is real.

Mom watches me with worry as I sit blankly. One hand sneaks up toward mine, but every time she's close enough to touch my skin, it skitters back.

She's afraid of me.

I nod lifelessly.

I'll do what you want. Just leave me alone.

Marcia the counseling center reception lady and her faceless husband the pastor sit awkwardly on our lumpy couch when mom ushers me out. Of course, he doesn't actually have no face. He just has no name. Or maybe he does. I never remember; it doesn't matter to me anyway. But he has no face because he has no name, because what is a person without a name? A painting that moves. A statue that breathes.

A farce. A paradox.

I pull down the only t-shirt mom had deemed acceptable and nod without emotion in their direction. Marcia waves, like she's happy to see me and wants me to wave just as enthusiastically back, while her husband gives me a gentle smile that I suppose he means to be soothing and kind.

Seeing his blurred out face again is like ripping duct tape off a stab wound.

I settle into the recliner on the far side of the room, as far away from the smiling couple as possible, and mom sits in the other. She smiles back at them, but her face is frozen with fakeness and they know it. I envy Shiloh, who's lurking in the hallway, contemplating whether tis nobler to run or to rescue me. I envy dad, who probably doesn't even know our house has been invaded by religious space aliens.

I wish I was dead. Because people don't come to talk to dead people. They don't dig down into the grave, crack open the coffin, and inspect the person for signs of life. Of course they don't. Because they're dead.

All my problems would be solved if I were dead. I'm sure of it.

But I'm not.

I'm sure I look a sight. I haven't shaved in three days. I haven't showered in a week. Even to me, my hair smells funny, and it probably looks even worse. I'm so tired my arms feel like trailing limp on the floor, and I lean against the seat like it's the only thing that can hold me up. Marcia's eyes twitch between mom and I with worry, but she masks it all with a bright smile.

The man without a face says something to me, but all I can hear are mumbled out words. A statue can't talk. A painting can't have a voice. So why would I hear him speak?

Marcia turns to mom. "Is he still not responding?"

Wrong thing to say at the wrong time. Mom's lip wobbles, but Marcia doesn't catch it because she stills it almost instantly. "Not quite yet," she says cheerfully, "but Diana says she think he'll start speaking up soon." Mom didn't understand Diana's view on the word soon. Soon was a relative word. It changed every moment. One day, soon meant by lunchtime. The next, it meant within the next year or so. Soon was not a fixed date.

Mom said it like it was.
Marcia takes Mom's hand and squeezes it like a boa constrictor in love. "Oh, Ann. We're praying for you, dear. And for Matthew. I know he has it hard."

People think that not talking means not meaning. On the contrary, the less you talk the more you hear. It's a common fact of nature. That's why dead people hear everything. They never talk.
I want to hear everything. Maybe now that I'm awake, I won't miss anything like I did before. The unspoken pleas. The worries below flesh level. The heart that stops beating too early.

So that's why I'm dead.

Because dead people don't talk.

The faceless man now has a voice because he talks to my mother instead of me. He doesn't touch her or shake her hand or get anywhere near her, but the look in his eyes envelops her and I in a spiritually metaphorical hug.

Gasping for air, I look up at the ceiling and wriggle out of his imaginary grasp.

"We just want to know that we're here for you all," he says softly. He does everything softly; it's pathetic. "The first Christmas without a loved one is always the hardest; we know." He glances significantly and sadly at his wife.

Do they? Does he? Marcia has a face. She has a voice. She has a name. She's imperfect, because she's lost someone she should've kept. She's so broken up inside and I can only see it because all her shatter pieces line up with mine, although her's are painted gold to distract other eyes. That man has nothing. He has no face. He has no voice. He has no name. He's a painting, a portrait, a masterpiece. He's perfect. Whole on the inside.

He can hardly know anything about this.

Sometimes I wish I could see his face. I want to know what a perfect person looks like. I want to know whether he really is perfect, or if his masterpiece is really just a perfect illusion. Because if it is, I want to learn. I want to see how he does something so terrifyingly amazing. I want to be as fake as he is.

But at the same time, I never want to become a faceless person like him. I want to be real, I want to be genuine, I want to be broken. I don't want to be like Marcia, gilding over all the jagged edges. I want to embrace the fractures.

But to do that and not be destroyed by the pain, I have to be dead.

Forever?

Forever.

The faceless man and his broken wife are leaving. He walks over to my chair, his "repent or thou shalt be doomed" face softened in compassion, and my throat tightens like I might throw up across his neatly ironed suit. "See you soon, Matthew," he says, clapping a hand on my shoulder. I wondered if he meant soon like Diane did: relative, or defined? "Have a merry Christmas."

Oh yeah. That was number one on my to-do list.

Oh wait.

Dead people don't have Christmas.

They're just dead.